Tuesday, August 23, 2011

What makes a good novel?

In the course of an interview, Norm Goldman, the publisher and editor of Bookpleasures, asked me what made a good novel. My thoughts turned immediately to the well-known Somerset Maugham quip, which is (approximately) ‘There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are’. In fact, it’s a hard question and answers may even vary depending on the sort of novel you prefer to read. But the scope (and looseness) of the form almost encourages diverse responses. I think mine are pretty basic.

First, you have to believe what’s happening in the pages, even if it means stepping outside what’s normally called ‘reality’. The hero may be a battle-scarred galaxy wanderer with green blood and a prehensile nose, but if you’re interested in him and care what happens to him, you’ll read on. In fact, I’m sure I’d find such a character far more sympathetic and interesting than the pieces of cardboard that masquerade as characters in the Dan Brown epics. (Sorry, Dan, if that upsets you. Go and read your bank balance, that’ll cheer you up.) Sci-fi may hop from planet to planet or past to future as if they’re neighbouring streets, fantasy may move into fifth, sixth or other dimensions, vampires may even overcome mortality itself but, in each case, if there’s a commitment to and a concern for the creatures living the story, you’re held by them.

So the primary quality of a good novel is its ability to make you care about its characters, worry for them, dislike them for what they do to others, pity them. Above all, you need to believe in their reality. It’s your empathy/sympathy that guarantees the authenticity of their world. If you’re involved in it it must, by definition, be real.

Another obvious quality must be the page-turning one. You have to want to know what happens next. Sometimes, the intensity of the emotions involved (yours as well as the characters’) transcends the actual story but usually there’s a journey to make, problems to be solved, setbacks to be overcome. I’d argue that these, too, depend on the characters and their interactions, but as a plot develops, it renews those chars, gives them opportunities to redefine themselves, makes them harder or easier to like. They can’t grow in a void, they need to be tested, questioned.

Then you get to the other qualities, the sub-texts,  themes – all those things which, for some students in tutorials, ‘spoil’ the novel. ‘Why do there have to be meanings?’ they ask. ‘Why spoil the story by analysing it, taking it apart?’ And it’s not easy to answer those questions. If they’re enjoying reading something, that should be sufficient in itself. On the other hand, a closer look at the text can make it even better as echoes are heard, hidden motives are revealed, characters are exposed as being not just individual psyches but representatives of greater truths. But even if they resist the analytical urge, readers will still be affected by the great novels in ways of which they may be unaware, but which come from subtler processes than ‘good stories’ or identifying with the people in them.

It’s the things that make a good novel great which are the hardest to pinpoint. They’re the result of some extra elements that the better novelists achieve, a sort of layering which gives you the satisfaction of the story but also suggest undercurrents, a significance just beyond your perceptions. Even after you’ve finished reading, your mind keeps returning to what’s happened or to an image because it’s stayed with you, disturbed you or made you smile. These are things whose meaning goes beyond their own immediate context. On the surface, novels like that are certainly about people, but they’re also about indefinable forces.

And they’re fundamental to the form. Even with novels which are too easily dismissed as ‘mere genre’ novels, these forces are at work. If readers are lifted from their limited present into a realm where unicorns graze and everything is possible, their experience of life is enhanced. Whether this happens from reading Tolstoy or a hospital romance is irrelevant. The point is that it happens.

The novel is a great form. It gives you space in which to let things develop. You can create echoes between themes that bring together things which on the face of it are separate. You hear an animal scream in the woods as a man reflects on a love he’s just lost and you fabricate connections between them. And when I say ‘you’ there, I mean the reader. That’s the final beauty of the form and one I mention ad nauseam: the writer provides the raw materials and the indications but  leaves room for the reader to do some work, create some patterns, draw his/her own conclusions. It’s a strange, but powerful intimacy between the two.


Jaden Terrell said...

Bill, great points. There are a lot of books I enjoy, but the one I consider truly "great" are the ones that leave me thinking--and feeling--long afterward. TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, THE LORD OF THE RINGS, and A SEPARATE PEACE are a few that come to mind. All of them touched something in me and haunt me to this day. Oh, to write such a book.

Bill Kirton said...

You will, Beth. We all will.